Chris Willman
May 09, 2008 AT 10:27 PM EDT

When I was a kid, there was no country music in our household — except for one song, Eddy Arnold’s truly immortal 1955 smash, “Cattle Call,” which somehow got a pass. Like a lot of children of the second half of the 20th century, I grew up with parents who had made the transition from farming to suburbia and who probably rejected country, consciously or unconsciously, as an unnecessary reminder of the rural lifestyle they’d worked so hard to get away from. But my father had an inordinate love for “Cattle Call,” which featured Arnold breaking into a falsetto yodel between verses about howling coyotes, wide open prairies, and a cowboy who’s “lonesome” but also has a “heart (that’s) a feather in all kinds of weather.” For somebody who’d actually grown up among the cattle, that had to have been a nice, wistful tonic at the end of a hard day of being a CPA, and we nearly wore the grooves off that record. After Eddy Arnold died Thursday, just days short of his 90th birthday, I had “Cattle Call” running through my head all day — but, as I half-joked to friends, there was nothing unusual about that; I often have “Cattle Call” running through my head.

The funny thing is, “Cattle Call” was completely unemblematic of Arnold’s career — at least the second, more successful part of his career, when he set aside anything resembling an agrarian image, was seen almost exclusively in tuxedos, and established himself as more of a pop crooner. He was the original king of country crossover. My dad would buy Arnold’s later records but always be confounded by how little these cosmopolitan-sounding songs resembled the Western-themed hit he loved; never mind that Arnold’s transition from hillbilly icon to formally dressed gentleman roughly mirrored the farm-to-city transition our family had made. Not very many fans considered Arnold’s switch to a slicker style selling out, though. Though he had his first No. 1 country hit in 1947, he had his biggest run of hits in the 1960s, after he’d adopted the smooth “Nashville sound,” which involved strings and background chorales — crossing over to pop success and becoming the Rascal Flatts or Shania Twain of his day. In the end, many consider him the most successful country singer of all time, if you combine record sales (85 million sold) with radio successes (145 chart hits, including 28 No. 1s).

addCredit(“Eddy Arnold: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images”)

Of course, today he’s remembered a lot less than a lot of countrylegends whose success wasn’t nearly so great. If you’d taken a polllast weekend at Stagecoach, the country music festival in California,it’s unlikely Arnold’s name would have rung a bell with more than atenth of the general attendees. And even in hepper or moreknowledgeable country circles, Arnold tends to be an afterthought thesedays. Part of that’s surely due to him having outlived his commercialpeak by so many decades — refusing to die young does diminish one’slegend, right? — and having lived the kind of business-savvy,unrambunctious lifestyle that doesn’t lend itself toward biopicdevelopment. (He was married to the same woman from 1942 until shepreceded him in death just two months ago.) And part of it’s becausesome folks, whether they were around at the time or are just working uptheir biases now, never got over the way that once-rough hillbillymusic got some of its edges sanded off by the sound popularized byArnold, producer Chet Atkins, and the Anita Kerr Singers. He was thefirst country singer to become renowned as a Vegas headliner — not thekind of legacy that Hank Williams worshipers necessarily revere. But asjournalists and historians like CMT’s Chet Flippo have pointed out,the new, pop-friendly sounds of Arnold and his ilk helped keep countryalive at a time when it was in danger of dying out. And, all survivorfactors aside, a lot of those records are pretty good, too. The HankCochran-penned “Make the World Go Away,”a defining 1965 No. 1 country hit which made the pop top 10 in bothAmerica and Britain, perfectly encapulates a sentiment common toeveryone who’s ever bred cattle or just eaten them. “Make the world goaway/And get it off my shoulders/Say the things you used to say/Andmake the world go away…” Did any troubled, wishful lyric ever betterexpress the appeal not just of love but of music itself?

Though he retired from live performance after one last Vegas gig in 1999, Arnold released his final album, After All These Years,just three years ago, when he was 87, after a long time-out. Surelythis made him the oldest singer still signed to a major label, and itsvery release attested to his importance in Nashville. Joe Galante, thehead of SonyBMG Nashville, has a great sense of country history, but healso hasn’t been the least bit sentimental about keeping “heritage”artists on the roster when they aren’t selling records anymore. Butclearly he knew that a career like Arnold’s deserved a final gracenote, and it got one. Now the world has gone away for the singer, andhe’s gone to that great cattle call in the sky… where, no doubt, evenas those spurs jangle and dogies are rounded up, Arnold is riding therange in a tuxedo.

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